Skype reaches out to mobile users

 TORONTO — A desire for wireless access will help drive the market for voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, according to speakers at the Voice on the Net (VON) Canada conference.

“The benchmark with telephony is, it has to be a mobile service,” said Niklas Zennstrom,

founder and chief executive officer of Skype, which provides a free downloadable voice over IP software client. “Wi-Fi plays and important part in this.”

Zennstrom, who spoke Tuesday to about 150 people at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, said mobile workers are starting to get away from notebook PCs and using lighter devices, such as personal digital assistants and smart phones.

Skype is working on VoIP clients that will operate on platforms like Symbian, Windows Mobile and Embedded Linux, he said, adding dual-mode wireless handsets that work on both Wi-Fi networks – originally designed as local-area data networks using the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ 802.11 protocol – and cellular networks.

“If we can put Skype on those phones, it will become useful.”

About 155,000 users download the Skype software each day, and about 35 million people use the software now, Zennstrom said.

The software has become so popular it could become a de facto standard as a VoIP software client, said Tom Evslin, an independent consultant and former chairman of VoIP wholesale provider ITXC.

He said Skype could become similar to Windows, in that other software developers will feel they have to make their software compatible with it.

Evslin added voice over Wi-Fi will help drive down the cost of mobile telephony.

“Wireless (carriers) charge ridiculous access rates because they can,” he said. “That will change with Wi-Fi.”

But Wi-Fi was originally designed for data networks, and a public hotspot operator using the IEEE 802.11b standard – which provides maximum throughput of 11 Mbps – should not expect more than 12 customers to be able to make VoIP calls simultaneously, said Ben Guderian, director of marketing strategies and industry relations for wireless equipment maker <a href=http://www.spectralink.comSpectraLink Corp.

Most Wi-Fi hotspot applications include quality of service tools that give voice calls higher priority over data traffic to prevent problems such as latency and jitter. This means if 12 people are making voice calls, data traffic could be locked out.

“If you’re sitting in a hot spot and people are talking on their phones … people on their laptops are going to start to get upset,” Guderian said.

Voice over Wi-Fi is getting popular among enterprise users, especially in health care, said Guderian, who spoke to about 40 attendees during a panel discussion titled “Wi-Fi, Wi-Max, Why Not?”

Guderian said users will want dual-mode handsets that can operate on cellular networks outside of buildings and on Wi-Fi networks inside buildings, but there are some barriers to implementation.

For one, the handsets are more expensive, and to work on both cellular and Wi-Fi networks, the devices have to be capable of handing off calls from one network to the other.

“The biggest issues with this is where the carriers fall because they hold all the cards,” he said.

But the ability to roam seamlessly between networks without dropping the call may not be a big issue for most business users, Guderian said.

“Today most of us would be perfectly happy if we’re getting in the car we say, ‘Hang on, I’ll call you back.’ I’m not sure that’s a show-stopper in dual-mode devices catching on.”

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